A Little Love Story
A Little Love Story
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US Praise for Roland Merullo and his previous books“A portrait of a time and place that has few equals.” —The Boston Globe“A beautiful story told with the compelling voice of a writer who is willing to approach the enormous question of redemption, and does so with truthfulness and striking decency.”—Elizabeth Strout
“[This] novel is so true that it has the authenticity of a memoir. It will, I think, be compared to A Separate Peace . . . . It is an extraordinary achievement.” —Anita Shreve
“Emotionally complex, politically intelligent, beautifully written: Among the best from a novelist in the classic American tradition.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“A great novel—ambitious, heartfelt, generous, and oh-so-skilled.” —Richard Russo
“Merullo invents a world that mirrors our world in all of its mystery. And he does it in language so happily inventive and precise and musical, and plots it so masterfully, that you are reluctant to emerge from his literary dream.” —The Washington Post Book World“Merullo is a writer of great talent.” —Robert Stone
“Merullo has a knack for rendering emotional complexities, paradoxes, or impasses in a mere turn of the phrase.” —Chicago Tribune In A Little Love Story, Roland Merullo—winner of the Massachusetts Book Award and the Maria Thomas Fiction Award—has created a sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious tale of attraction and loyalty, jealousy and grief. It is a classic love story—with some modern twists.
Janet Rossi is very smart and unusually attractive, an aide to the governor of Massachusetts, but she suffers from an illness that makes her, as she puts it, “not exactly a good long-term investment.” Jake Entwhistle is a few years older, a carpenter and portrait painter, smart and good-looking too, but with a shadow over his romantic history. After meeting by accident—literally—when Janet backs into Jake’s antique truck, they begin a love affair marked by courage, humor, a deep and erotic intimacy . . . and modern complications.
Working with the basic architecture of the love story genre, Merullo—a former carpenter known for his novels about family life—breaks new ground with a fresh look at modern romance, taking liberties with the classic design, adding original lines of friendship, spirituality, and laughter, and, of course, probing the mystery of love. Roland Merullo is the critically acclaimed author of Revere Beach Elegy and In Revere, In Those Days. He teaches at Bennington College and lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and two children. Chapter 1My year of mourning was over, and I decided to mark the anniversary by treating myself to a doughnut.
By my own choice, I had not had sex with anyone during those twelve months. I’m not sure why I did that. Maybe it was out of respect for the woman I had lost, though she wouldn’t have wanted anything like that from me. My older brother is a monk, so maybe I was trying to prove I could keep up with him in the abstinence department. Or maybe I was just afraid I would meet someone I liked and sleep with her, then start to think about her all the time, then start to want to have children with her, and then she would be torn away from me and spirited off to some better world—if there is a better world—and that is not the kind of thing you want to go through twice in one year.
So on that wet September night my year of abstinence was finished, and I went out looking for a doughnut as a sort of offbeat celebration. That’s all, really. A doughnut says: Listen, for your eighty-five cents I’m going to give you a quick burst of feel-good. No soul connection. No quiet walks. No long foreplay sessions in a warm one-bedroom. No extinction of aloneness. No jealousy. No fights. No troubles. No risk.
On that night, the risk I thought I was willing to take extended only as far as chocolate-glazed. Steaming cup of decaf next to it, little bit of cream, the shabby comfort of my favorite doughnut shop. It seemed a small enough thing to ask, after the year I’d seen.
The steady rain that had been falling during the afternoon and early part of the night had quieted to a light drizzle. The streets were black and wet, streaked with color from storefront neon and traffic lights. I worked my old pickup out of its parking space—foolish move, giving up a parking space in that neighborhood at that late hour—and drove to Betty’s.
There is no Betty. Once there might have been, but at that point Betty’s was owned by Carmine Asalapolous, a rough-edged, middle-aged man who had told me once that he wished he’d done something heroic in his life so he’d have a piece of high ground to fall back on when the devils of self-doubt were after him. Carmine, I said, just being a decent person, good father, excellent doughnut-maker—that’s enough heroism for one life. But he shook his big head sadly and said no, it wasn’t, not for him.
Carmine went to a two-hour Orthodox service on Sunday mornings. During the week he liked to make off-color jokes with his regular customers. He had some kind of mindless prejudice against college professors, a scar between his eyebrows that looked like a percent sign, and two young daughters whom he adored and whose pictures and drawings were taped up on every vertical surface in Betty’s. He took his work seriously. If you got him going on the subject of doughnut-making, he’d tell you the chain doughnut shops used only the cheapest flour, which is why you left those places with a pasty aftertaste on your tongue.
I parked in front. The roof of Betty’s was dripping and one cold droplet caught me on the left ear as I walked in. I remember that odd detail. In line at the counter I held a little debate with myself—how wild a night should it be?—then asked for two chocolate-glazed instead of one, a medium instead of a small decaf. Carmine was counting money in the floury kitchen. I could see him there through a sort of glassless window. He looked up at me from his stack of bills, pointed with his chin at the waitress’s back, and made a John Belushi face, pushing his lips to the side and lifting one eyebrow, the expression of a man who had not a millionth of a chance of ever touching the waitress in a way she liked, and knew it.
I carried my paper cup of coffee and paper plate with two doughnuts on it to a stool at a counter that looked out on Betty’s wet parking lot. In a minute a trim, balding man sat beside me, with a black coffee and the Sports section of the New York Times. "Nice truck," he said.
"I saw you get out of it," he said.
I could not think of any response to this.
He kept trying. He said: "You don’t see many of them still around. Fifty-one Dodge?"
"Gorgeous," he said. "Like you."
I looked away. I was waiting for my coffee to cool, and was not really in the mood to talk, and though I understand sexual loneliness as well as the next person, there was not much I could do about this man’s loneliness. Just at that exact moment—it was after midnight—a woman walked out of Betty’s carrying a small bag and got into her car and she must have had a slippery shoe or been distracted by something because she put her new Honda in reverse and drove it across about fifteen open feet of parking lot and straight into the back of my truck.
"Whoa!" the man beside me yelled.
I took a good hot sip of coffee. I watched the woman get out, rubbing the back of her neck with one hand and looking as if she wished she had never been born. And then, very calmly, I went outside to talk to her.
1. One of the things Jake enjoys most about his relationship with Janet is the comfort of the shared moods that make words seem unnecessary. But in what seem like Janet’s final hours, Jake regrets not having said more. What thoughts and feelings should he have expressed more explicitly? What opportunities do you think he’s missed for sharing his feelings?
2. What does Jake’s work as a carpenter mean to him? Do you think he would continue in this line of work if his paintings earned him enough to make a good living?
3. On their first night together, Janet is standing naked in Jake’s apartment when he reflects, “No woman had ever been so naked with me . . . it was almost inhuman to be as naked as that.” What does he mean by this? How does Janet make him feel this way?
4. How would you describe Governor Valvelsais’s feelings for Janet? Are the qualities he sees in her the same ones that attract Jake?
5. The word machine is used several times in the book to describe people in a derogatory way: the September 11 terrorists are described as machines. Ellory refers to unreflective people as machines. But Jake also describes Janet’s detachment when administering her own medicine and tests as machine-like. In her case, is the description negative? How does the meaning of the word shift from terrorists and religious automatons to Janet?
6. Why does Janet add her name to the waiting list for a lung transplant? Does she have any real hope that she will survive the wait?
7. In all her confusion, Jake’s mother has moments of clarity–and one significant moment of revelation when she recalls “living lobal.” Why do you think it takes Jake so long to realize her meaning? Given the circumstances, did you see her blurting out “living low-ball,” as Jake heard it, as significant at the time?
8. Before taking his painting of Janet to Dr. Vaskis as a bribe, Jake revises it to reflect his new understanding of her courage. What qualities do you think the painting conveyed before the revision? How do the changes he makes to the painting reflect the changes in Jake and Janet’s relationship, and in Jake’s openness to love?
9. Both Jake, with his painful, recent, romantic history, and Janet, with her realistically limited expectations for a romantic future, have reasons to be reluctant in exposing their hearts to what seems like a doomed relationship. What is it that makes each of them decide to take the risk?
10. Why does Jake continue to call his sister, though her circumstances and attitude never seem to improve? What does this act reveal about his character?
11. Janet explains to Jake the reasons she is drawn to politics, and also a list of reasons she would not wish to hold an elected office herself. Do you think she would be as reluctant to run for office if she were healthy? How does her illness affect her political idealism?
12. Of his mother, Gerard, and Ellory, is there one character who you think provides Jake with the best moral support? Who do you think is Jake’s best advisor?
13. Why does Janet choose Jake over the governor?
14. What do you make of Amelia Rossi’s elaborate Thanksgiving feast? Is this overabundance just a family tradition or do you see it as something more meaningful?
15. Why does Jake take Janet to Shanksville? What purpose does this trip serve for him–and why is it important that Janet be there?
16. Are there any silver linings to Janet’s illness?
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